Lyric's "Sweeney Todd": Still Cutting Edge

Amelia Broome and Christopher Chew in "Sweeney Todd" 

Attend the trail of Sweeney Todd: first as one of those sensational serialized “penny dreadful” Victorian publications in Britain (entitled “The String of Pearls”), subsequently in various British film and theatre versions, notably the 1973 play by Christopher Bond which led in 1979 to the popular musical. With Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by Hugh Wheeler, it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. Now presented by Lyric Stage Company, it’s a fine opportunity for theatergoers to revisit and renew their acquaintance with the titular demon barber who captured so many hearts (and other organs) some thirty-five years ago. The original Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince, was a triumph of stagecraft, consolidating many theatrical elements into a cohesive whole that was unforgettably wondrous. While some theatregoers were put off by the grisly subject matter, it was generally recognized as an ingenious metaphorical treatment of the British class system. It was a dark work but filled with exceptional gifts for the discerning audience, and Prince’s memorable production made for an incredibly juicy evening.

In a similar vein, so to speak, this production is directed and staged by Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos, with his legendary aplomb with musicals (such as his “Urinetown”, “On the Town” and last season’s closer, Sondheim‘s “Into the Woods”). He has assembled a fine cast this time around, from the vengeful Sweeney Todd himself (Christopher Chew) to his all-too-willing accomplice Mrs. Lovett (Amelia Broome), to the young hero appropriately named Anthony Hope (a beautifully voiced Sam Simahk), his adored Johanna (Meghan LaFlam, an already accomplished student at Boston Conservatory), and the loyal Tobias Ragg (Phil Tayler, in an amusingly unhinged yet still poignant portrayal). Chew has grown into a singing actor who can conquer the complexities of this demanding show, and Broome (so stunning in last season’s “Master Class” at New Rep) is every bit his equal. Also in the cast are the two “heavies”, Judge Turpin (Paul C. Soper, whose singing betrays an impressive operatic background) and The Beadle (Remo Airaldi, with another fine voice), as well as the scheming Adolfo Perelli (Davron S. Monroe, yet another great voice in a sinister role), the Asylum head Jonas Fogg (Rishi Basu) and a mysterious Beggar Woman (Lisa Yuen). The Ensemble includes Teresa Winner Blume, Shonna Cirone, Serge Clivio, Christina English, Sarah Kornfield, Aaron Michael Ray, and Matt Spano. That’s a good dozen and a half or so actors who fill the stage with music (glorious in their almost through-composed choral work) and mayhem. It should be noted that Veloudos, long a champion of non-traditional casting, chose an African-American to enact the character Pirelli the barber, an Italian who turns out to be an Irishman, and it works seamlessly, a tribute to the company’s diverse groundbreaking efforts over the years. (On the subject of barbers, the scene with Pirelli, perhaps the only flaw in the play, as it often seemed endless, has been, as they say, judiciously trimmed). The casting for this musical is perhaps the most critical element, as the demands made by the intricate score are daunting.

The score is Sondheim’s masterpiece, from the chilling title song (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”) and the Beggar Woman‘s “City on Fire”, to the wit of Mrs. Lovett‘s “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea”, to the loveliness of her duet with Tobias in “Not While I’m Around” and Johanna’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, as well as the Beadle’s “Ladies in Their Sensitivity”. In this version the often-dropped “Mea Culpa” by Judge Turpin is restored, establishing motivation for his obsession for Johanna. And then there’s “A Little Priest”, the jaw-droppingly hilarious first act closer with easily the funniest lyrics Sondheim ever wrote. (Spoiler alert: they include Mrs. Lovett’s description of “such a nice plump frame wot’s-his-name has…had…has”, and a reference to shepherd’s pie “peppered with actual shepherd on top”). The creative team includes Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg and his orchestra of six who somehow do justice to Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration, complex Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, varied Costume Design by Rafael Jaen, atmospheric Lighting Design by Frank Meissner, Jr., and crucial Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. It’s a pleasure to see and hear so many professionals, in front of and behind the stage, all at the top of their game. It’s a virtual guarantee that, like Sweeney himself, you’ll be transported.

Widely considered not only Sondheim’s best musical composition, but among the best musicals and/or operas (take your pick, one could argue either way) ever written, it’s difficult to describe the work without divulging too much. As Sondheim wrote, “What happened then, well, that’s the play, and he wouldn’t want us to give it away, not Sweeney”. Therefore, you owe it to yourself, whether you’re very familiar with the work or a novice, as the first song in the Prologue attests, to “attend (this) tale of Sweeney Todd”. Just make sure you’re well groomed prior to a performance and don’t need a haircut or trim; otherwise, you might find yourself invited for dinner. After all is said and undone, getting involved in such a marvelous production of a true masterpiece of live theater is certainly devoutly to be wished, but you needn’t lose your heads over it.

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